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Tap a Bilingual Customer Base

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According to 2020 U.S. Census data, 22 percent of the population speaks a language other than English at home, and roughly nine percent of the population has limited to no understanding of English. 

While that means an overwhelming majority of the population can speak English, businesses that are not accommodating for those who can’t are losing out on large groups of customers, says Jon Jilani, a professional linguist and writer who is fluent in eight languages and has worked in the industry for 15 years. 

If a shop can only speak in English, that means they are losing the business of nearly one of every 10 potential customers and could be better accommodating two of every 10 potential customers. 

With shops constantly trying to boost profits in any way possible, becoming a bilingual business should be on the top of that list, says Servando Orozco, owner of six repair shops in Southern California under the name ‘Orozco Auto Service.’ 

“If you can’t communicate with them, they’ll go somewhere else,” Orozco says. 

So how should businesses make sure they are catering to this segment of the population? Ratchet+Wrench spoke with Jilani and Orozco to find out. 


Speaking Stats

These are the most common languages spoken at home (other than English):

Chinese - 3.5 million people

Tagalog (Filipino) - 1.7 million people

Vietnamese - 1.5 million people

Arabic 1.2 million people

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Meet them at their comfort level. 

In each of Orozco’s six facilities, there is at least one employee present at all times who can speak Spanish. It’s a must for his business, which he says helps attract Spanish-speaking customers based on its name alone. Orozco’s numbers follow the larger trend found in the census data, with roughly 20 percent of his customers needing to talk to someone who can speak Spanish.

Orozco says his customers often have the ability to speak English, but choose to speak Spanish anyways because it’s more comfortable for them. Auto repair can already be an anxiety-inducing process for any customer, and adding a language barrier just adds to that stress, so it’s a barrier Orozco actively tries to eliminate. 

“It’s a people business,” he says. “Speaking their language is a big difference. It builds confidence. It’s easy to have rapport and trust and it’s easy to be likable.”

Orozco says ideally if a shop just has one person who speaks a different language, it should be a service advisor. In his shop, many of his employees speak Spanish. 

“When you see a Spanish-speaking person walk in and can say ‘Buenos días. Cómo estás?’ It’s telling them, ‘welcome home.’”

Jilani has personal experience taking relatives to repair shops and acting as a translator for them. He says they likely would’ve left in frustration had he not been there. But don’t put the responsibility on the customer to bring a translator. It’s a shop’s job to serve its customers. The business should be going the extra mile to help the customer, not the other way around. 

Both Jilani and Orozco agree that having an employee who can speak a customer's native language will “100 percent” make them want to come back. 

Now, of course this doesn’t mean a shop needs to have employees that speak 10 different languages to satisfy any possible need from the customer. Each shop should understand their unique customer base. If there’s a large Spanish-speaking population nearby, then emphasize that. If there’s a robust Somali population in the area, prioritize an employee who can speak Somali.

“One of the most important things for a business is to know your customer,” Jilani says. “And you can’t know your customer if you can’t communicate with them. Understanding your customers needs and wants is critical.”

Seek them out

Orozco actively searches for Spanish-speaking customers. He understands that, especially if they don’t speak English, the shop’s normal marketing strategies may not connect. If he’s going to speak Spanish in the shop to the customer, he should try to attract them using Spanish outside the shop. 

He’s tried advertising to different Spanish magazines, but that didn’t return the results he was looking for. Now, he makes it a priority to host and attend events within the Spanish-speaking community. There he has been able to further his connection and trust with the locals and bring business back to the shop. 

Signage isn’t enough. 

For businesses that don’t have an employee in place to speak to the customers, the natural next step would seem to be implementing signage. Something like a pamphlet in a different language that informs customers about the services. 

But to Jilani, that’s not going to be much help. 

“It’s a one sided conversation. They can’t respond back to you,” he says.

Think of all the questions the average customer asks in English. There’s no reason to expect that pamphlet will be able to satisfy all their questions. If anything it might prompt more questions, Jilani says. That’s why there’s no replacement for an employee who can talk with them. 

For a similar reason Orozco doesn’t implement Spanish signage in his shop. He says it often confuses his English-speaking customers and the Spanish-speaking customers get all they need from talking with a service advisor. 

The bottom line: there’s no sufficient substitute for an employee that speaks the language. 

Do your homework. 

Jilani says it’s become all too common for job applicants to claim they’re proficient in a language. But what does that really mean?

Just because an applicant took Spanish for three years in high school doesn’t mean they’d be able to understand and hold a conversation with a customer, he says. So be careful about hiring someone who blindly says they speak another language, especially in a specialized field like auto repair where the barrier of proficiency is higher than being able to understand a general conversation. 

Jilani recommends having employees become certified. There is no central certification organization, but several companies offer certifications with prices varying around $100-200. Doing so will save time on the back end and avoid the potential of hiring a candidate who doesn’t truly speak the language. 

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